Visualizing Government Debt

A U.S. debt clock was on prominent display throughout this year’s GOP convention. While mildly entertaining, watching the numbers change isn’t really all that helpful in understanding just how big is it?

Some say mounting national debt has made “trillion the new billion.”    Perhaps.  But there’s no getting around the fact that incomprehensibly large numbers are tough to grasp, let alone visualize – for elected officials and voters alike.  Big numbers can be both confusing and intimidating, which may explain the growing popularity of euphemisms such as “gazillion” to express unfathomably ginormous numbers.

There are a number of helpful infographics available online.  This one from does a great job of graphically illustrating the size of one million, one billion and one trillion.  It also illustrates the current size of the national debt ceiling of $16.394 trillion and <OBSCENE CONTENT ALERT> the staggering $122.1 trillion in the nation’s unfunded liabilities.

To get a warm and fuzzy feeling all over, try this tool to estimate your very own share of the national debt.  Just remember that this calculator excludes state and local debt.

Closer to home, references such as this and this can help put state and local government budgets into perspective – particularly those pesky unfunded liabilities for pension and retiree health plans that run into the millions.

And if you want to understand the differences between Europe and the U.K./U.S. in terms of how they express large numbers (who knew?), check out this simple, straightforward explanation from two adorable British geeks from How-To Geek.comCheerio, mate!


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Author: Wendy Lack

Wendy Lack worked in city government human resources management for over 25 years. Wendy blogs on Contra Costa Bee on local government. Her articles have been published at American Thinker, Fox and Hounds Daily, and other blogs focused on California politics and local government. Wendy has a B.S. in Public Affairs from the University of Southern California and an M.B.A. from Golden Gate University, San Francisco. She lives in Contra Costa County, California and can be contacted at

6 thoughts on “Visualizing Government Debt”

  1. Read this piece, then click on this link as a reminder of how BIG a trillion really is!

    “The Obama administration has passed a slew of regulations, including the new health care law, which together are poised to cost taxpayers and businesses more than originally assumed . . . the cost of regulations will be about $1.8 trillion annually, nearly 20 times the $88 billion initially assumed . . . .”

    Perhaps we all should keep these infographics handy when we read the daily news . . . to keep everything our government is doing to us squarely in context. Somebody should!

  2. From RealClearPolitics:

    Most Americans know that the government spends more than it takes in, and a simple measurement along the lines of Tax Freedom Day would put this into sharp perspective. We propose “Deficit Day”- the date at which federal tax revenues run dry and Uncle Sam begins racking up more debt. This year it falls on September 10th.

    If the federal government were to spend the same amount of money each day starting on January 1st, it would run through all of its tax revenue by September 10th. Everything the government spent from then until the end of the year would be on credit.

    If lawmakers produced a balanced budget, Deficit Day would occur on December 31st, when the government spent the last dollar of its annual tax receipts at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. But we haven’t seen a balanced budget since the Eisenhower administration.

    Read the rest here:

  3. You make a good point Jack.
    If the Govt. can, why cant we!
    Or we begin to cut our debt by revising our tax code.
    Here is how:
    I am in support of the Fair_Tax and when elected, I will gladly sign on as a Co-sponsor to that Bill in Congress.

    What is the FairTax plan?

    The FairTax plan is a comprehensive proposal that replaces all federal income and payroll based taxes with an integrated approach including a progressive national retail sales tax, a prebate to ensure no American pays federal taxes on spending up to the poverty level, dollar-for-dollar federal revenue neutrality, and, through companion legislation, the repeal of the 16th Amendment.

    The FairTax Act (HR 25, S 13) is nonpartisan legislation. It abolishes all federal personal and corporate income taxes, gift, estate, capital gains, alternative minimum, Social Security, Medicare, and self-employment taxes and replaces them with one simple, visible, federal retail sales tax administered primarily by existing state sales tax authorities.

    The FairTax taxes us only on what we choose to spend on new goods or services, not on what we earn. The FairTax is a fair, efficient, transparent, and intelligent solution to the frustration and inequity of our current tax system.

    The FairTax:

    Enables workers to keep their entire paychecks
    Enables retirees to keep their entire pensions
    Reduces the cost of American products shipped overseas allowing them to compete fairly with products made elsewhere
    Ensures Social Security and Medicare funding
    Closes all tax loopholes and closes the door on our elected officials trading tax preferences for campaign dollars.
    Brings transparency and accountability to tax policy
    Is Progressive, NOT Regressive because it refunds in advance the tax paid on purchases of basic necessities to the poverty level.
    Abolishes the IRS
    Passing the Fair Tax would:
    Result in tremendous economic growth in the United States promoting free enterprise and capitalism as companies come back to the US to produce products tax free on US soil.
    Result in smaller government by abolishing the IRS’ 100,000 employees and $11.7 Billion dollar budget.
    Would eliminate the hundreds of Billions of dollars American’s currently spend trying to comply with a tax code that is incomprehensible.
    Reduce government intrusion into our private lives. No more invasive federal tax forms to fill out. You pay your tax at the cash register.
    Tax the 1-2 Trillion dollar shadow economy such as drug dealers and prostitution – or any persons doing a strictly cash business. These people currently pay NO Federal Income Tax because they don’t report the income. They do however buy things – which is where the Fair Tax would capture their portion of their tax. A conservative estimate is that this alone would generate over 100 Billion dollars in tax revenue.
    The Fair Tax is not a Flat Tax, nor is it a European style VAT. Please don’t get them confused. A Flat Tax would do virtually none of the above and leaves the code open to manipulation by lobbyists and Congress. A VAT (Value Added Tax) like in Europe applies tax at each stage of the manufacturing in business to business transactions and is in effect a hidden tax. A VAT is bad. The Fair Tax only taxes transactions at the FINAL POINT OF SALE. Sale of used items IS NOT TAXED.

  4. WSJ Blog:

    “The government is projected to run a deficit of between $1.1 trillion and $1.2 trillion in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, meaning that spending will outpace tax revenue by that amount over 12 months . . . Federal spending remains high and tax revenue remains low as a share of the economy, compared with prior years . . . The government is currently running an average monthly deficit of $100 billion and is likely to hit the debt ceiling sometime in late December.”

    More here:

  5. Can I pay off my share of the debt with my credit card? If so, I’m going to use the miles to plan a really long vacation, and I won’t be back until after the whole thing’s paid off!

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